One way that dispositions such as a gift during one’s lifetime, or a Will, may be challenged is on the basis of undue influence. However, allegations of undue influence are often difficult to prove. Additionally, due to the nature of these types of allegations, which often call into question the character of the alleged influencer, they are taken seriously by the court. As a result, parties should be cautious in alleging undue influence, and should be virtually certain that they will be able to back up their claims.
A recent example of this was in the costs decision of Nimchick v Nimchick, 2019 ONSC 6653. A mother and daughter had claimed that their son/brother (“B”) had devised a plan to financially exploit his mother for the benefit of himself, his spouse, and his son, (“J”). The circumstances leading to this allegation involved the mother adding J’s name to a bank account belonging to the mother, for the purpose of paying for J’s student loans, with any excess going to B. The trial judge dismissed the mother and daughter’s claim, finding that the mother intended to gift the money to B and J, and that B had not exerted undue influence over his mother.
The defendants, who were wholly successful, sought their substantial indemnity costs, in the amount of approximately $147,000.00. The court noted that the defendants’ partial indemnity costs of the action were approximately $100,000.00.
In making its determination as to costs, the court considered the circumstances in which elevated costs are warranted, including where the unsuccessful party has engaged in reprehensible, scandalous, or outrageous behaviour that is worthy of sanction. The court found that the mother and daughter’s behaviour had been of this nature. This conclusion seemed to have largely been based on the court’s finding that the mother and daughter advanced baseless allegations of wrongdoing and failed to prove their claims of civil fraud and deceit. Overall, the court preferred B’s evidence to the evidence from the mother and daughter.
The court ultimately awarded costs to the defendants in the amount of $100,000.00. This amounted to the defendants’ partial indemnity costs, according to a note included in the decision. Accordingly, it does not appear that the award against the plaintiffs was necessarily on an elevated scale. The costs awarded were, however, $15,000.00 more than the amount submitted by the plaintiffs as being appropriate.
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Lewis v. Lewis is a recent Ontario Court of Appeal decision in which the Appellants challenged the dismissal of their Application from the Superior Court of Justice. At issue was whether the Appellants’ mother, Marie Lewis, had the requisite capacity to execute new powers of attorney for property and personal care. The Appellants sought to invalidate the new powers of attorney and bring back into effect prior powers of attorney which Mrs. Lewis executed in 1995.
The Appellants raised several issues on appeal. In essence, they took issue with the application judge’s assessment of the evidence and exercise of his case management discretion.
In dismissing the appeal, the Ontario Court of Appeal emphasized the following principles regarding capacity:
- Since capacity is presumed, those objecting to the document(s) have the onus to rebut that presumption, with clear evidence, on a balance of probabilities.
- Similarly, those raising the issue of suspicious circumstances and undue influence bear the onus of establishing it, on a balance of probabilities.
- The fact that someone had various chronic medical conditions throughout their life does not automatically mean that they lacked capacity. It is open to the application judge to consider the evidence. In doing so, the application judge may reject any evidence that they find to be unreliable.
- Without evidence to the contrary, it is reasonable for an application judge to take “solace” from the fact that the individual executed their new powers of attorney before their solicitor of many years.
- It is reasonable for an application judge to refer to the statements of section 3 counsel, appointed by the Office of the Public Guardian and Trustee, concerning an individual’s expressed wishes.
Good things to keep in mind when dealing with capacity issues.
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Suzana Popovic-Montag and Celine Dookie
In contentious litigation, it is quite rare for a court to award complete indemnity costs to one of the parties. The decision to award costs, and the amount of such costs, is within the court’s discretion. There are a number of factors for the court to consider in exercising its discretion, as set out in Rule 57.01 of the Rules of Civil Procedure, including factors relating to the conduct of a party.
Where a party has made an offer to settle pursuant to Rule 49 of the Rules of Civil Procedure, there are certain costs consequences if that party is successful, including the scale of costs to which they are entitled. Rule 49 specifically sets out when a party is entitled to partial or substantial indemnity costs. But in what circumstances will the Court increase the scale of costs to complete indemnity?
The recent decision of Churchill v Churchill, 2019 ONSC 5137 considered this issue. There had been a dispute between children over their mother’s estate. The plaintiffs were virtually entirely successful at trial as against the respondent, their brother, and had made several offers to settle that were more favourable to the brother than the results at trial. The court concluded that the plaintiffs were entitled to substantial indemnity costs from the date of the offers made, but raised the additional question of whether the scale of costs should be increased to complete indemnity, in view of the brother’s conduct throughout the proceedings. Citing the Ontario Court of Appeal, the court stated that, in order to increase the scale “the conduct of the losing party would have to be based on their serious misbehaviour so, as to fall within the category of ‘reprehensible’ behaviour”.
The court considered the brother’s behaviour, including his misappropriation of estate assets, failure to comply with court orders, and perseverance with meritless claims despite a number of court hearing with rulings adverse to the brother and two adverse costs awards. Although the brother was self-represented, that did not justify his conduct.
The plaintiffs’ complete indemnity costs were approximately $77,000.00. Ultimately, the court concluded that the plaintiffs were entitled to more than substantial indemnity costs, and awarded them costs in the amount of $75,000.00.
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A few months ago, I blogged about a New Yorker article that discussed the challenges of living well now that people are living longer than ever, and what is being done about it. One of the topics addressed was the difficulty of marketing certain products that are aimed at older adults, mainly because we do not want to buy something that will remind us that we are aging or old.
A recent article in MIT Technology Review asked an interesting, and related, question: Why are products for older people so ugly?
One quote in particular, I think, sums up the issue quite well:
Presented with products that are ‘brown, beige, and boring,’ many older people will forgo convenience for dignity.
Unfortunately, most individuals and companies who design products for older people seem to make assumptions about what older people are looking for in a product. For instance, they may assume that an older person cares more about functionality than aesthetics. In many cases this is not necessarily true, and the older person in question will likely end up feeling that the product ultimately draws unwanted attention to their age and particular needs.
The article discusses the idea that older people should be more directly involved in conversations about how to design the products that they need, or that are aimed at them. This would, of course, be helpful to those designing and using the products, but would also allow older people who may feel that they are no longer seen as contributing to society, do something that they may find useful and fulfilling.
The “Longevity Explorers” consulting group was created around this concept. It started with a group of older people meeting to discuss aging in order to pinpoint the areas that product developers should focus on. Participants can suggest topics they want to cover, and there is also a moderator who will introduce a main discussion topic. In 2017, a separate branch of the group was introduced to serve as paid focus groups for companies. Each “Explorer” receives a fee for participating in the focus group, and in exchange, the company gets feedback from their targeted customers (namely, seniors) about a product that they are designing.
This seems like a much-needed shift in how we think about products for older people. If we can focus on creating products that not only address the needs of older people, but are designed in a way that will make seniors want to use the product, both the companies selling the products, and importantly, the older people using them, will benefit.
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Financial elder abuse can take many forms. We have previously blogged about elder abuse by family members, as well as the role technology plays in the increase in phone and email scams affected seniors.
This Global News article tells the story of an elderly couple who claim they were pressured into selling their house.
The couple had lived in their home in Woodbridge, Ontario, for over 20 years, and had no plans to move or sell their home. Although the house was not for sale, in February 2012, a real estate agent showed up at the couple’s door with an offer to purchase the home. There is some dispute about the subsequent interactions between the couple and the agent, but ultimately, a contract was signed for the sale of the couple’s home. After seeking advice from a lawyer, the couple refused to close on the sale of the home. The buyer brought a claim against the couple to enforce the contract, and it appears from the article that, as of October 2018, the litigation remained ongoing.
The couple say that, initially they ignored the offer to purchase that had been delivered by the real estate agent. The husband told his daughter that he had asked the agent several times to give him a few days to consult with his children before finalizing any deal. On the other hand, the agent says that negotiations occurred over a three-day period, and the couple had several days to consider the offer and consult with their children.
There is also a question of whether the couple was capable of entering into the sale transaction. The couple’s daughter says that the wife was 84 years old at the time and suffering from early onset dementia, and that the husband was not fluent in English.
The couple’s daughter believes that her parents were pressured into agreeing to sell their home by the agent. The article mentions that a similar situation could come up with any door-to-door salesperson, as elderly people are generally home during the day, and will typically open their door and talk to people. Unfortunately, there isn’t really a simple solution if an older adult is pressured into an agreement. If the other party to the agreement is intent on enforcing it, the senior may need to resort to failing to comply with the terms of the contract, which is likely to lead to litigation. That can be a stressful and time-consuming endeavour—the couple in the article are apparently still involved in litigation years after the contract was entered into.
Incidents like these are an unfortunate reminder that elder abuse continues to be an issue, and that it can take many forms. That being said, with increased attention will come increased awareness, which, I hope, will lead to the prevention or avoidance of similar issues in the future.
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The Ontario Superior Court of Justice recently made an important ruling on a voir dire in respect of Dr. Kenneth Shulman’s proposed expert testimony.
This ruling will be of particular interest to estate litigators as it addresses the inherent admissibility of retrospective capacity assessments, amongst other things.
The Court in this instance implemented a form of blended voir dire, wherein Dr. Shulman’s evidence would be received in its entirety and submissions would be made on the issue of admissibility of the expert testimony. In the event that the Court ruled that Dr. Shulman’s evidence was admissible, the evidence obtained during the voir dire would be incorporated as part of the trial record.
The Defendant, amongst other objections, took issue with Dr. Shulman’s testimony on the basis that his testimony was based on a retrospective capacity assessment which was problematic for the following reasons:
- The proposed opinion was based on hearsay evidence and must therefore be excluded; and
- Expert opinion evidence on retrospective testamentary capacity assessments constitutes novel or contested science and is therefore not reliable.
The Court did not accept that Dr. Shulman’s use of certain evidence that has not been proven, and has not been relied upon him for the truth of its contents, prevents the Court from admitting his expert opinion evidence at the threshold admissibility stage. In other words, any such issues could be addressed in reference to the weight of the proposed evidence.
Most interestingly, however, the Court noted that many of the types of medical and psychiatric opinions offered at trial are retrospective in nature and did not agree that retrospective capacity assessments are novel in Ontario courts. The Court specifically noted that the Defendant was unable to identify a single case, since retrospective testamentary capacity assessments were first considered by the courts, in which psychiatric expert opinion of retrospective testamentary capacity assessment has been ruled inadmissible.
In applying the admissibility test established in R v Abbey 2017 ONCA 640, the Court held that Dr. Shulman’s expert opinion satisfied the threshold requirement in the first step. In weighing the cost versus benefit of admitting Dr. Shulman’s report, the Court found that the evidence favoured the admission of Dr. Shulman’s evidence.
The Court made a ruling admitting Dr. Shulman as an expert geriatric psychiatrist to provide expert opinion evidence in the areas of geriatric psychiatry and retrospective testamentary capacity assessment.
This is an important ruling in the context of estate litigation given that in most instances, the capacity assessments that are usually relied on in the course of litigation are of a retrospective nature, since the subject of the assessment is most often deceased.
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At what point does a settlement become final? Is it when the parties agree on all of the terms of the settlement and sign a written agreement, such as minutes of settlement? Or at an earlier time?
In the recent decision of Cox v Baker, 2019 ONSC 2859, the court was asked to make a determination as to whether a binding settlement had been reached. The litigation involved an inter vivos trust (the “Trust”) settled by a mother for the benefit of her two daughters and subsequent generations. After the death of Donna (the second to die of the two daughters), the three living beneficiaries were Donna’s sons, Brett and Brent, and her niece, Marnie. Brett was the sole trustee after Donna’s death.
Prior to her death, Donna was living at a house that was owned by the Trust (the “Property”), with her husband, John. About a year after Donna’s death, in March 2018, John brought an application against Brett, as trustee of the Trust, and against all three of the beneficiaries, personally, seeking, among other things, an interest in the Property by way of resulting and/or constructive trust.
In May 2018, John and Brett ran into each other at Donna’s gravesite. They discussed John’s application, John advised Brett that he would call his lawyer and withdraw his application, and the two shook hands. Thereafter, a number of emails were exchanged between counsel for John, and counsel for Brett, Brent, and Marnie. It appeared that the parties had reached an agreement that John would withdraw his application, without costs, provided that all parties sign a mutual release. However, John subsequently took the position that there was never a binding settlement agreement, as the parties had not agreed on the specific terms of the mutual release. Brett, Brent, and Marnie brought an application to enforce the settlement.
Ultimately, the court concluded that a binding settlement had been reached. Some of the key factors were, in the court’s finding, that there had been a mutual intention between the parties to create a legally binding contract, and that all essential/material terms had been agreed upon. The court also noted that the agreement had been reduced to writing by way of the email exchanges between counsel.
The court specifically considered whether the fact that the parties had not yet agreed on the specific wording of the mutual release was necessary to create a binding settlement. After reviewing the case law, the court concluded that, unless there is some indication that the settlement was conditional on the parties also agreeing on the language for a release, it is not required that the parties agree on the specific terms of such a release before there will be said to be a binding settlement agreement.
The court also commented on the importance of the principle of finality, which demands that settlements entered into with the assistance of legal counsel be upheld, as it is a matter of good public policy to encourage settlement. Settlements of this kind should be upheld other than in exceptional cases, which the present case was not.
This decision is an important reminder that, if the parties have reached an agreement on all essential terms, even if the more minor details have not been agreed upon, and the minutes of settlement and/or release have not been finalized and executed, a binding settlement may still exist. Parties should be aware that once a binding settlement has been reached (which could happen prior to signing minutes of settlement), they cannot simply change their minds. It is important to keep this in mind at all stages of a negotiation, and to be alert as to when it could be said that all essential terms have been agreed upon.
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These days, life expectancy is longer than ever. We have previously blogged (for instance, here and here) about some considerations and consequences of having a longer life expectancy. A recent article in The New Yorker considers aging, and in particular, anti-aging now that people are generally living longer. The online version can be found here: Can We Live Longer but Stay Younger?
One of the problems with living longer, as highlighted in the New Yorker article, is that we still must deal with the challenges and realities of aging. What we really want is not eternal life but rather, eternal youth.
The article discusses several efforts to address or counteract the types of issues that we face as we age. For instance, a geneticist at Harvard has successfully extended the life of yeast, and is moving on to human trials. A Harvard molecular biologist, George Church, has had success reprogramming embryonic stem cells to essentially turn an old cell into a young cell. Church’s work has been done so far on mice and dogs, but there are plans to commence human clinical trials within the next five years.
The goal of the work being done by Church is to live better, not necessarily longer: “The goal is youthful wellness rather than an extended long period of age-related decline.” The article discusses the nature of this age-related decline, through the illustration of a “sudden aging” suit that allows the wearer to experience the physical challenges of aging, including boots with foam padding to produce a loss of tactile feedback, and bands around the elbows, wrists, and knees to simulate stiffness. The point of the aging suit is to help create empathy and understanding about how difficult each and every task (an example was reaching up to a top shelf and picking up a mug) can be for older adults, both physically and mentally. So the question becomes, if we are living so much longer, but with age, every day and every task becomes much more difficult, what can we do to counteract that?
The work being done related to anti-aging and the creation of products to make older people’s lives easier is interesting and seems to be moving in new directions. For instance, the article mentions the difficulty of marketing certain products aimed at older people, because we do not like the idea of buying something that reminds us that we are old. So instead of selling a personal-emergency-response system to send an alert and seek assistance in the event of a fall, or some other physical emergency, in the form of a pendant worn around the neck, it is suggested that the most effective such device would be an iPhone or Apple Watch app.
Unfortunately, the issue of dementia is still a concern. There still does not appear to be a cure in sight for Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia. The causes remain unclear. The effects, however, are evident. One of the individuals mentioned in the article was Professor Patrick Hof, who studies brains. On the physical effects of dementia on our actual brains, Professor Hof notes that “[y]ou can’t tell any difference, even under extreme magnification, between an aging non-demented brain and a younger human one…But, holding an Alzheimer’s brain in your hand, you can see the atrophy.” It appears that there is still a lot of work to be done in this area, in particular.
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I recently came across an article discussing a court’s decision in respect of what appears to be a claim for dependant’s support in Tasmania. In the decision of Booth v Brooks  TASSC 35, the deceased died with a Will that did not leave anything to his estranged daughter. The deceased was also survived by a long-term partner and two adult sons, who were mentioned in his Will.
The daughter made a claim under a Tasmanian statute, the Testator’s Family Maintenance Act 1912 (the “TFMA”). Section 3(1) of the TFMA states as follows:
3 (1) If a person dies, whether testate or intestate, and in terms of his will or as a result of his intestacy any person by whom or on whose behalf application for provision out of his estate may be made under this Act is left without adequate provision for his proper maintenance and support thereafter, the Court or a judge may, in its or his discretion, on application made by or on behalf of the last-mentioned person, order that such provision as the Court or judge, having regard to all the circumstances of the case, thinks proper shall be made out of the estate of the deceased person for all or any of the persons by whom or on whose behalf such an application may be made, and may make such other order in the matter, including an order as to costs, as the Court or judge thinks fit.
By comparison, section 58(1) of Ontario’s Succession Law Reform Act, (the “SLRA”) seems to have quite similar language. Section 58(1) provides:
58 (1) Where a deceased, whether testate or intestate, has not made adequate provision for the proper support of his dependants or any of them, the court, on application, may order that such provision as it considers adequate be made out of the estate of the deceased for the proper support of the dependants or any of them.
Under the SLRA, in order to qualify as a “dependant”, one must be a spouse, parent, child, or brother or sister of the deceased, to whom the deceased was providing support or was under a legal obligation to provide support immediately before his death. The TFMA, on the other hand, provides in section 3A that the persons who may make an application pursuant to section 3(1) are the:
- parents (if the deceased person dies without a spouse or children); and
- person who had a certain relationship with the deceased, and who was entitled to receive maintenance from the deceased at the time of his or her death.
In Booth v Brooks, the court concluded that the daughter had been left without adequate provision. One of the factors that lead to this conclusion was that the deceased had not had a good relationship with the daughter throughout her life and had not provided her with any direct financial support. In particular, the court stated that the deceased’s “abnegation of parental responsibility during childhood increases the moral obligation of the testator to the child”.
It seems that the key difference in the law in Tasmania versus Ontario that came into play in the Booth v Brooks decision, which would likely have resulted in a different outcome had the scenario arisen in Ontario, is that the TFMA does not require that a spouse, child, or parent be receiving or entitled to support or “maintenance” at the time of the deceased’s death. Interestingly, the Tasmanian law seems to lean the other way—if the deceased has not provided adequate support during his or her lifetime, it may increase the ability of a child or spouse to obtain support from the deceased’s estate.
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Medical records are frequently key evidence in estate disputes. Often, a testamentary document or inter vivos transaction is challenged on the basis that the deceased lacked testamentary capacity or the mental capacity to make a valid gift.
The British Columbia Supreme Court recently reviewed the issue of admissibility of medical records within the context of a will challenge. The parties propounding the last will asserted that the deceased’s medical records were inadmissible on the basis that (1) the parties challenging the will were attempting to admit the records for the truth of their contents, (2) the records included third party statements from family members, which was suggested to constitute double hearsay evidence, and (3) the records were entirely inadmissible because they were not relevant, none of them being within weeks of the date of execution of the challenged will.
In Re Singh Estate, 2019 BCSC 272, the estate trustees named in the deceased’s will executed in 2013 only learned of the existence of a subsequent will executed in 2016 after they provided notice to the beneficiaries of the estate that they intended to apply for probate in respect of the 2013 will. The 2016 will disinherited two of the deceased’s eight children (including one of the two adult children named as estate trustee in the 2013 will) on the basis that they had received “their share” in their mother’s estate from the predeceasing husband’s estate. Between the dates of execution of the 2013 and 2016 wills, the deceased had suffered a bad fall and allegedly experienced delusions and had otherwise become forgetful and confused.
At trial, medical records are typically admitted under the business records exemption of the Evidence Act (in Ontario, section 35). Justice MacDonald acknowledged this general treatment of medical evidence, citing the Supreme Court of Canada (at para 48):
While clinical records are hearsay, they are admissible under the business records exception both at common law and under s. 42 of the Evidence Act. The requirements for the admission of medical records as business records are set out in Ares[ v Venner,  SCR 608]. The Supreme Court of Canada held at 626:
Hospital records, including nurses’ notes, made contemporaneously by someone having a personal knowledge of the matters then being recorded and under a duty to make the entry or record should be received in evidence as prima facie proof of the facts stated therein.
Subsequent case law cited by the Court addressed the second objection of the parties propounding the will, which provided that the observations that a medical practitioner has a duty to record in the ordinary course of business (including those involving third parties) are generally admissible (Cambie Surgeries Corporation v British Columbia (Attorney General), 2016 BCSC 1896). Lastly, the Court considered the issue of relevance of the medical records and found that evidence relating to the mental health before and after the making of a will can be relevant in supporting an inference of capacity at the actual time of execution of the will (Laszlo v Lawton, 2013 BCSC 305).
After finding the medical records to be admissible as evidence of the deceased’s mental capacity (and in consideration of all of the available evidence), the Court declared the 2016 will to be invalid on the basis of lack of testamentary capacity.
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